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February 11, 2021

New York State Legislature Votes to Amend the State's Bill of Rights to Include Right to Clean Air and Water

On February 8, 2021, the New York State Assembly passed legislation to place a constitutional amendment measure on next year’s ballot. The ballot measure will enable New Yorkers to vote on amending the NYS Constitution’s Bill of Rights to include a right to clean air and water. The legislation previously passed the state senate with a vote of 48 to 14 on January 12, 2021. If the measure is approved by voters, New York will join a small group of states that have formally recognized environmental rights as inalienable.

Known as the Green Amendment, the bill was originally introduced in 2017. Then under the senate Republican majority, the bill did not make it out of committee review. With the senate now under the control of Democratic Senator Stewart-Cousins, the bill had a direct path to passage with little resistance. The amendment, if approved, will add to Article 1 of the NYS Constitution, “Each person shall have the right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”

In practice, the amendment will require all state and local government entities to consider the environment and its’ citizens relationship to it in all decision making. It will also strengthen environmental justice efforts, which is a main focus of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) passed in 2019. A brief summary of the CLCPA can be found here.

Supporters of the bill believe the amendment is necessary because it creates an enforceable standard that in practice would ensure that environmental impacts will be considered early in any government agency decision making process, which will reduce harm to citizens and the environment. Opponents to the constitutional amendment believe it will only lead to increased litigation, citing ambiguity as to what constitutes “clean” air and water.

In New York, a constitutional amendment requires approval in two successive legislation sessions. Legislators in both houses approved the proposal in the last legislative session, meaning the assembly’s action was the last step to initiate the ballot measure. The amendment will be placed on the New York State ballot for the people to vote upon in November.  

If you have any questions regarding the content of this alert, please contact Yvonne Hennessey, Environmental Practice Area chair, at; David Solimeno, associate, at; Emma Marshall, law clerk, at; or another member of the firm’s Environmental Practice Area.

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